To support the B-29 Superfortress armada gathered on Guam, Saipan and Tinian – and to make their own, unique contribution to the air campaign against the Japanese home islands – American fighter pilots based on Iwo Jima flew “very long range” (VLR) missions against the Japanese home islands beginning April 7, 1945.
On their first mission, ninety-six P-51s escorted a hundred of the Superfortress heavy bombers.
Japanese fighters met them.
Amid a raging air battle, flak claimed two bombers and Japanese fighters shot down a third. But Mustang pilots were credited with shooting down 21 Japanese aircraft.
Other air-to-air battles took place as American warplanes became a more common sight over Japan, but the dogfights were almost secondary to the larger challenges. For the American fighter pilots the big problem was not the enemy but simple airmanship – weather, navigation and fuel consumption. Moreover, they battled fatigue: When they covered the 675 miles between Iwo Jima and Tokyo, often flying through monsoon storms, the men stayed strapped into their cockpits for eight hours or more.
“You’re aching all over,” said former 1st Lt. Joe Fahey of the 78th Fighter Squadron, 15th Fighter Group, in a 1993 interview. “You’re exhausted. You’re hungry. You’ve got a cramp in your leg. The only way to make a cramp go away is to stand and put weight on it. But you can’t stand in a cockpit. Usually, after landing my crew chief had to pull me out of the plane.”
On that first mission, Maj. James B. Tapp, later to become an ace, was one of the first Mustang pilots to tear into a formation of Japanese fighters. “VLR missions were a test of flying skill,” said Tapp in a September 22 telephone interview. “Battling Japanese fighter pilots caused your adrenaline to flow, but getting from Point A to Point B was the hardest part.”
Fighter Groups On Iwo
The Marine landing on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945 ignited one of the fiercest ground battles of the war. Fighting was still heavy when the first P-51s arrived at the small unpaved airstrip near the base of Mount Suribachi on March 6, 1945.
Pilots climbed out of their cockpits and were handed entrenching tools and told to dig foxholes. They did not even have tents until shortly before the island was deemed secure on March 26. Meanwhile, the Mustang men spent their first month supporting the Marines on Iwo and attacking nearby targets in the Bonin Islands, mainly on Chichi Jima, before starting VLR flights to Japan on April 7.
They were operating from a postage stamp-sized volcanic island that offered heat, noise, violence, and almost no creature comforts. The fighter groups belonged to VII Fighter Command, the “Sun Setters,” and for them Iwo Jima was a springboard to the Japanese home islands – what the Americans called “the Empire.” Some B-29 bombers were used solely to help the P-51s navigate to the Empire while the fighters, in turn, provided protective escort for other B-29s.
As if to illustrate that the foe was not the main problem, June 1, 1945 – called “Black Friday” by the Mustang men – was one of the worst non-combat disasters of the war.
About 150 Mustangs en route to Osaka flew into a blinding frontal system that reduced visibility to near zero. Twenty-seven aircraft were lost – two to mechanical failure, one to a collision with another type of aircraft, and fully 24 losses were due to weather.
“A yardbird B-29 pilot led them into a weather front,” said former 1st Lt. Jerry Yellin, who did not fly that day. Factors included intense turbulence, heavy rain and snow and icing conditions. Aircraft were split up. Pilots became disoriented. Some collided while others simply went down at sea. Among those lost was 1st Lt. Danny Mathis, piloting Yellin’s aircraft Dorrie R. Two days earlier, Yellin had shared an aerial victory against a Japanese Zero with Mathis.
Enough For A Book
The exploits of these fighter groups are covered briefly in the author’s book Mission to Tokyo. The story of the VLR missions will be told in greater detail in Mustang Men, a book scheduled for 2014.
By the summer of 1945, four fighter groups were operating from three airfields on Iwo Jima: the 15th, 21st and 506th with P-51Ds and the 414th FG with the P-47N Thunderbolt. On their marathon sorties from Iwo, American fighter pilots were able to roam freely over the main Japanese island of Honshu, rarely challenged in any serious way by Japanese aircraft. Japan’s army and navy air forces were now relying on inexperienced pilots who were no match for the Mustang men.
The aerial journey from Iwo was considered so dangerous that a pilot earned a ticket home by completing 15 missions.
Between July 1 and Aug. 15, even with an air-sea network spread part of the distance to Japan and accompanying B-29s equipped with jettisonable life rafts, fully 85 American fighter pilots lost their lives on VLR missions. Only a handful were claimed in air-to-air combat.
By the time the “Sun Setters” flew the 51st and last VLR mission on Aug. 14, 1945, the day before the Japanese surrender, they had lost 131 fighters.
The VLR missions produced the final American pilot to score five aerial victories. Capt. Abner M. Aust, Jr, of the 506th Fighter Group became the last American ace of World War II. His kills included two Zeros and three Ki-84 Hayate (Gale) fighters, known as “Frank” to the Americans. Like many who fought those VLR battles, Aust continued on to a successful career in the postwar military.